DVD Review: Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance

This short feature is an extra on the DVD for Casting the Runes, also made by ITV Yorkshire Television in the 1970s. It is very short, only about 15 minutes, and appears to be part of an educational video for musicians on how to score a television show; it begins with an interview by the composer who wrote the music for it.

After the composer’s introduction, we go to the film and meet Mr. Humphreys as he arrives at the Wilsthorpe rail station. A helpful narrator, reading text from James’s story, informs the viewer that “[Mr.] Humphreys had inherited — quite unexpectedly — a property from an uncle: neither the property nor the uncle had he ever seen.” (James’s Mr. Humphreys is described as a young man; the actor playing him here, Geoffrey Russell, is considerably older. IMDB tells me that he was 51 at the time this was made.)

Humphreys is welcomed warmly at the station by his late uncle’s man-of-business, Mr. Cooper. By his frequent misuse of words in the English language, Cooper would seem to be a descendant of Mrs. Malaprop. Cooper escorts Humphreys to the house he has inherited, and Humphreys has his first look over the grounds of the place.

Because of its length–or lack thereof–the story in this film version is highly compressed. There are only the two characters, Humphreys and Cooper. James’s story also gives us Cooper’s wife and daughter, a lady who comes to visit, and a few servants; if any of these people appear at all in the film, they are no more than lineless extras.

The most attractive feature of the new property to Mr. Humphreys is a yew-hedge maze. Mazes, he tells Cooper, are of “mathematical interest” to him and asks if Cooper has ever been inside. Regretfully, Cooper says he hasn’t, although he’d like to see it. Humphreys’s late uncle had the gates locked and forbade anyone to enter; he had a “dislike to the memory of his grandfather,” who created the maze. No one has set foot within the maze in years.

From Cooper, Humphreys also learns that the grandfather was a strange man and that no one seems to know where he’s actually buried. When Humphreys observes that a man who designed a maze would surely have designed his own mausoleum as well, Cooper says that none was ever built and that he’s certain the old gentleman isn’t in the family vault.

Where Grandpa is interred will be revealed in the course of the story. But first, Humphreys goes out to see the maze for himself.

The gate is wrought iron and on it is an inscription that reads “Secretum meum mihi et filiis domus meae.” That is, “My secret is for me and the sons of my house.” Humphreys takes a moment to work out this translation, then gives the gate a little tug. Even though it’s supposed to be locked, it comes open under his hand. He ventures in.

The paths are all overgrown–or the film gives the impression of outreaching brambles and tall weeds by filming through the hedge and occasionally thrusting branches up into the actor’s face as he walks by. Once, he walks into a spider’s web.

Mr. Humphreys finds the globe in the center of the maze.In spite of these somewhat annoying obstacles, Humphreys has no trouble finding his way to the center, where there is a little open green area. This is also unkempt; the decorative granite urns in the corners and the small metal globe on a pedestal at the middle are cluttered up with cobwebs and layers of dead leaves. It is the globe that captures Humphreys’s immediate attention and he brushes away the debris to examine it more closely.

This is James’s description of the globe:

… it was finely engraved with figures and inscriptions, and that on a first glance Humphreys had taken it for a celestial globe: but he soon found that it did not answer to his recollection of such things. One feature seemed familiar; a winged serpent — Draco — encircled it about the place which, on a terrestrial globe, is occupied by the equator: but on the other hand, a good part of the upper hemisphere was covered by the outspread wings of a large figure whose head was concealed by a ring at the pole or summit of the whole. Around the place of the head the words princeps tenebrarum could be deciphered. … Above and below Draco were outlined various figures not unlike the pictures of the ordinary constellations, but not the same. Thus, a nude man with a raised club was described, not as Hercules but as Cain. Another, plunged up to his middle in earth and stretching out despairing arms, was Chore, not Ophiuchus, and a third, hung by his hair to a snaky tree, was Absolon. Near the last, a man in long robes and high cap, standing in a circle and addressing two shaggy demons who hovered outside, was described as Hostanes magus (a character unfamiliar to Humphreys). The scheme of the whole, indeed, seemed to be an assemblage of the patriarchs of evil, perhaps not uninfluenced by a study of Dante.

What the globe should look like.I’m sorry to say that the globe shown in this short film doesn’t have any of these remarkable details, but instead appears to be smooth metal. The big golden globe seen in Karswell’s study in Casting the Runes looks much more like the object described above.

When he clears away the leaves on the base just beneath the globe, Humphreys finds another odd inscription, this one in English: “Territory of Death.”

The next day, Humphreys receives a letter from a lady who is writing a book on mazes and requests admission to his maze. Cooper tells him that she’s made the request before, but Humphreys’s uncle always refused. Humphreys doesn’t see any reason why she shouldn’t come, but thinks that the maze ought to be tidied up first. He also wants to make a plan of the maze to have available for visitors.

There follows a sequence with comical music in which Cooper and a garden-boy with a scythe get hopelessly lost in the maze while clearing the paths. When Humphreys joins them, Cooper tells him that the maze is deliberately confusing–he hung his hat on a bramble and now here’s the hat and no bramble in sight. This wandering bramble is the only remnant of one element of the written story, that the ghost was mistaken for a dark bit of shrubbery as it crept out of the newly opened maze toward the house.

Humphreys dismisses Cooper’s bafflement in a condescending tone and assumes that Cooper is disoriented all on his own. He gives Cooper advice on the best way to solve a maze (keep turning left) and hands him a ball of twine to mark out the right path through the maze, then makes his own way to the center once again without difficulty.

When Cooper catches up with Humphreys in the center of the maze soon afterwards, he touches the globe and withdraws his hand quickly, saying that it’s very hot. Humphreys places his own hand on it and experiences no such heat.

“Something in the difference of temperament between us,” says Cooper as an explanation.

Then Humphreys settles down near the globe on a folding camp chair and tries to sketch up a rough plan of the maze. But Nature seems to be against him. First a breeze arises, casting more dead leaves on the note paper, then a few raindrops fall on it. When Humphreys is about to leave, the piece of paper he was drawing on is inexplicably missing. He finds it spattered with dirt under the hedge.

That evening, Humphreys is in his study, working to make a good copy of his plan for the maze. The narrator returns to describe the character’s feelings of oppression and unease, as well as the disturbing idea that something larger than a moth may have come in through the open window. With a few minor emendations, these lines are taken from James’s text.

For the most part, I’ve been disappointed in the special effects for supernatural events in these M.R. James adaptations, even the ones I’ve enjoyed most. So it’s impressive that this little episode does so well with the emergence of its ghost.

The hole in the paper,As Humphreys completes his drawing of the maze, he put in a little circle at the center to represent the globe. Then a black spot appears in precisely that place.

Humphreys examines it, first taking it for a blob of ink. He murmurs “A hole…” and the rest of the scene plays out as it does in James’s story:

But surely this was a very odd hole. It seemed to go not only through the paper, but through the table on which it lay. Yes, and through the floor below that, down, and still down, even into infinite depths. He craned over it, utterly bewildered. …

Oh yes, far, far down there was a movement, and the movement was upwards — towards the surface. Nearer and nearer it came, and it was of a blackish-grey colour with more than one dark hole. It took shape as a face — a human face — a burnt human face: and with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple there clambered forth an appearance of a form, waving black arms prepared to clasp the head that was bending over them.

The burnt face emerging from the hole The blackened, skeletal face appears to be some kind of stop-motion animation, but it’s surprisingly effective as it appears out of depths of the hole and scrambles up toward the viewer.

Humphreys tumbles backwards out of his chair and when Cooper comes to his aid, shouts “Open the globe! Open the globe in the maze.”

Which Cooper does, accompanied by the garden-boy, the next day. Breaking open the thin metal shell, they find ashes inside.

As an overhead shot shows the two wandering out of the maze, the narrator concludes with some text from the ending: “Mr Cooper’s view is that, humanly speaking, all these many solemn events have a meaning for us, if our limited intelligence permitted of our disintegrating it…” then adds that Mr. Humphreys “views on certain points are less clear cut than they used to be…” which doesn’t come from this story at all–it’s taken and slightly altered from the last lines of Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad.

Overall, it’s not a bad adaptation given its brevity. The production values are pretty good for British television in the 1970s, which tended to be on the cheap side. I’d also like to learn where the maze shown here really is. I saw two mazes in Yorkshire only last year and wonder if this could be one of them.

The Maze


Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.